Rising from Central Asia’s Karakum Desert is Ashgabat, Turkmenistan’s capital city – an eerily empty metropolis made almost entirely of white marble. Unexpected city of extremes.
Turkmenistan: Stranger in a very strange land
Landing in Ashgabat, there’s no sign telling you where you are. No “Welcome to Ashgabat”, no “Ashgabat International Airport, Terminal One” or anything of the sort. Instead, atop the terminal building, there is simply an embossed shiny head; the profile of a middle-aged man in gold. (turkmenistantwitter.blogspot.com)
Turkmenistan (a police state) is about the size of Spain and home to roughly five million people – remains a tightly controlled police state, so understanding the realities of travelling on the ground will mean an easier trip, and less surprises all round.
Turkmenistan is the world’s fourth largest gas reserves—a potential bonanza.
One of the most off-putting facts for all visitors to Turkmenistan is that outside of the capital and it’s limits, you are required to have a guide, which is both costly and restrictive. However, there are plenty of rewarding and exciting sights in store for prepared travellers who are up for a bona fide adventure – from dinosaur footprints and Arabian camels; to golden Akhal-Teke horses and burning gas craters. (worldnomads.com)
According to the World Tourism Organization, Turkmenistan is the seventh least visited country in the world, receiving just 7,000 visitors per year. Many travellers are deterred by the strict visa rules: tourist visas are only issued to those on guided tours; independent travellers are only given three-day transit visas.
But things look set to change with Turkmenistan’s current president, Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow, taking steps to open up the isolated country. Since taking office in 2007 he has unified the country’s dual currency exchange rate and channelled a reported $1.5 billion into building a world-class tourism zone on the Caspian Sea. “We are very proud of our country, and what it’s become in such a short time,” said our [Oasis Overland] (http://www.oasisoverland.co.uk/) guide, Kseniya Mikhailova. “Hopefully more people can come and visit.” (Nellie Huang)
If you get accepted for a visa, you’ll need to decide what sites you want to see in advance, as your route will be mostly set in stone before you arrive. That said, don’t hold your breath – it’s common to get rejected and deemed “an undesirable.”
In accordance with the law, citizens of all countries require a visa to visit Turkmenistan. To obtain a tourist visa for Turkmenistan, all foreign nationals must supply an invitation letter issued by a travel agency licensed in Turkmenistan.
Holders of a letter of invitation issued by a company registered in Turkmenistan with a prior approval from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs can obtain a visa on arrival valid for 10 days, and extendable for another 10 days.
Citizens of all countries have the right to visa-free transit through the international transit area of the Ashgabat Airport.
A special permit, issued prior to arrival by Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is required if visiting the following places: Atamurat, Cheleken, Dashoquz, Serakhs and Serhetabat. (en.wikipedia.org)
Turkmenistan is a secretive country — particularly to international journalists. In Ashgabat, visitors are been televised.
The 2015 World Press Freedom Index ranked Turkmenistan 178 out of 180 countries — ahead of only Eritrea and North Korea.
Turkmenistan first post-Soviet Leader was Saparmurat Niyazov, who molded Turkmenistan and liked power. He built a statue of himself that followed the sun. He even wrote his birthday into the Koran and even changed the days of the week and months of the year to the names of his family. (edition.cnn.com)
The ideology since Niyazov’s days has been training them to interpret the slogan, “Halk-Watan-Turkmenbashy” (The people-the Homeland-and the Head of the Turkmen), to mean that any criticism of the leader is treason, which is as much a serious crime with a severe punishment as a kind of madness to be avoided at any cost. (neweurasia.net)
International commentators characterized Niyazov’s term in office as a cult of personality rather than any recognizable democratic governance. During his presidency, he renamed cities, streets, months, periodicals and public organizations after favorite relatives, directed national news to report fictitious personal scientific breakthroughs, and wrote textbooks and spiritual treatise that he then made mandatory reading in the country’s schools. He issued smoking bans to all ministers and in public places when he was forced to give up after surgery in 1997, declared it illegal for young men to have long hair or beards, and banned opera, ballet, listening to car radios and the playing of recorded music on television and at public events. Whilst Turkmenistan was and remains a severely economically depressed nation despite significant natural resources, President Niyazov spent more on projects such as a huge artificial lake in the Kara Kum desert and an ice palace in the capital than on social welfare. (moveoneinc.com)
Under his leadership, Niyazov’s book, the Ruhnama — which he said he wrote as a “spiritual and moral guide” for the Turkmen people, but was actually a prolix collection of proverbs and plagiarized Sufi poems — was made mandatory reading in all schools and universities across Turkmenistan. Graduations were contingent on students’ knowledge of it; government officials were required to study it one hour each week; and teaching positions were often awarded to those who could recite by heart more of its obscure, if hilarious, kernels of confused wisdom: “The mud thrown at you is also thrown at me; and my cleanliness, my brightness is also yours.”
By the end of his reign, the President for Life had elevated his “spiritual and moral guide” to a literally holy status in Turkmenistan. The phrase “The Ruhnama is a Holy Book” was engraved, along with other verses from the Ruhnama and the Koran, on a mosque outside the capital, and Niyazov declared that the Ruhnama had to be displayed beside the Koran in every mosque across the country. When Turkmenistan’s Islamic grand mufti complained that Niyazov was behaving blasphemously, the mufti was sentenced to prison for twenty-two years. Later, the President for Life, not one to be humbled by a holy man’s threats, said he’d spoken directly with God, and that God agreed that anyone who had read the Ruhnama three times would be automatically admitted to heaven. It was, he said, a done deal.
Not surprisingly, when Niyazov kicked the bucket 2006, many Turkmens breathed a collective sigh of relief and hope for the future. Perhaps this marked the end of a rather unfortunate era? Perhaps this whole “holy” Ruhnama thing would finally be put to rest? Perhaps the hundreds of millions of dollars Niyazov spent on portraits, statues and monuments celebrating himself, his mother, and the Ruhnama would be repurposed to actually benefit the Turkmen people? (mentalfloss.com)
President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov took over after the death of Niyazov and moved his predecessor’s statue from the center of the city.
A U.S. Embassy cable in 2009 described Berdimuhamedov as “vain, suspicious, guarded, strict, very conservative, a practiced liar, ‘a good actor,’ and vindictive.”
But there’s no mistaking who is in charge of Turkmenistan — there are almost as many portraits of the president as there are white marble buildings.
That’s quite something for a city that has put itself in the Guinness World Records for its number of marble buildings. (edition.cnn.com)
Ashgabat is the capital and largest city of Turkmenistan, a single-party country, a former Soviet state, run by a president at the center of a cult of personality. The streets and all their beautiful parks stood deserted. There were more soldiers than civilians. They patrol the city center and are extremely jumpy about photographs. Taking pictures on some structures or areas are prohibited. (theatlantic.com)
“The personality cult has tried to distract our nation from its many crises, including drug addiction, unemployment among the youth, corruption, persecution, and lack of educational opportunities, not to mention environmental degradation. Despite all the many metaphysical issues at stake in Turkmenistan’s Stalinistic system that I tend to focus on as a blogger for neweurasia, these crises deal with the real bread-and-butter issues that matter the most to ordinary people. For them, these problems are the true dark side of the system”, neweurasia’s Annasoltan, chief blogger for Turkmenistan, said.
The President is portrayed as a supernatural person with special powers and a mission to protect the country and act in its best interest. That means whatever the President and his inner circle do is justified. But the personality cult is much more subtle than just this idolatry of one man, because being Turkmen itself is given a special position or pride, as though we are somehow spiritually different, even superior to, other nations. So, someone who does not conform with this viewpoint is branded “opposition” or an “enemy from within”.
Furthermore, this distorted paradigm dictates that ordinary people have nothing to do with the governance of the country. Instead, they should be happy to live in security in their country, in peace with their neighbours, and with huge deposits of gas and oil under the soil which should be more than enough to generate huge wealth. The ideology teaches that they shouldn’t envy some of the post-Soviet countries for their democratic failures, not to mention their neighbors in Afghanistan, Iran, and Iraq, who are beset with war and conflict. Foreign countries are portrayed as jealously admiring Turkmenistan for its hydrocarbon resources and the vision and wisdom of its President. So, foreign visitors are to be treated as possible spies, and critical foreign media coverage is to be understood as poisonous slander.
What breaks my heart is that my people, hypnotized by this ideology, are increasingly detached from the realities of life. Even though the Soviet Union is long gone, the nightmare of Stalinism is continuing in my nation. I can’t even begin to imagine what generations’ worth of so much ideological poisoning is doing to Turkmenistan’s future. (neweurasia.net)
After taking power in December 2006, with vague promises to open up the insular country, Berdymukhamedov has started to take down the enormous, building sized portraits of the last president hung all over the city, and has started to replace them with his own. The new President is keen to differentiate himself from his predecessor: whereas Turkmen news once almost entirely focused on stories of the late president’s intellectual and scientific works, it now instead almost entirely focuses on the new president’s athleticism and active association with sports. Recently, state controlled news reported that Berdymukhamedov has been elected as an honorary member to the German Society for Implantology for “the huge personal contribution made by the Turkmen leader, who has long led the health and medical Industry of Turkmenistan, to the development of medicine and his active assistance in promotion of the Turkmen-German cooperation in this important sphere.” (mentalfloss.com)
The new president, Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, who abandoned a career as a dentist to take over the presidency in December 2006, is regarded as “not a very bright guy,” according to a 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks last 2010. The cable goes on to describe the new leader, who prefers that his people refer to him as “Protector” or “Protective Mountain,” as “vain, fastidious, vindictive, a micro-manager” and a “practiced liar.”
After naming his reign “The Epoch of New Revival,” Berdymukhamedov carefully dismantled some of the Niyazov kitsch littering the country—including that gold, rotating one in the capital—and then replaced it all with portraits and statues of—who else?—himself. He rolled back Niyazov’s revisions to the names on the calendar. He also gradually reduced the presence of the Ruhnama in universities and government offices, and informed teachers that students should study it only for an hour each week. Instead, in the balance of their time, he said, they would study his books—a series of rambling treatises on subjects ranging from medicinal plants and economics to racehorses.
In his five years as president, the Protective Mountain has, however, taken a few baby steps in the general direction of real leadership. For instance, this fall, he opened a new 211-meter high broadcast tower just south of the capital, and announced that the proliferation of “advanced and innovative technologies” were a “state priority.” While that move was heralded as the “right general idea” by international media, most journalists pointed out that Berdymukhamedov actually stopped (way) short of any real change. The media in Turkmenistan is still controlled entirely by the government, opposition journalists are still regularly imprisoned, and the Turkmen internet is still so heavily censored, it makes Chinese freedom of information laws look downright liberal.
On October, 2010, in commemoration of all this indefatigable service to his country, Berdymukhamedov awarded himself the “Hero of Turkmenistan” medal, the country’s highest honor. No one in Turkmenistan batted an eye. After all, the President for Life awarded the “Hero of Turkmenistan” medal to himself six times over the course of 16 years. By comparison, the Protective Mountain is practically modest. (mentalfloss.com)
TRAVEL TIPS TO TURKMENISTAN
By Phil Sylvester, Travel Insights Editor
Turkmenistan Weather Worries
Weather is also a major factor – 90% of Turkmenistan is made up of the Karakum desert and in the summer temperatures in the capital soar up to 50° C, making travel in those months only suitable for masochists.
The country is also well known for it’s abundance of gold and gas, yet the reality is abject poverty for most citizens – case in point: gas is free for all but lighters and matches aren’t, so some Turkmen leave their stoves burning 24/7.
Crime & Curfews
It is also, without doubt, one of the most perplexing – and potentially problematic – ‘stans for visitors to travel through. According to official statements there is no crime in Turkmenistan, yet of course this isn’t true. It is fair to say though, that it is a safe country to travel in, with very low incidents of violent crime.
The Draconian 11pm curfew in the capital inevitably helps to keep street crime down at night.
Currently, Turkmenistan does not suffer the scourge of terrorist groups that neighbouring countries are working to combat – such as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan, Islamic Jihad Union (IJU), al-Qa’ida, and the Eastern Turkistan Islamic Movement – however it does suffer from ‘Vodka Terrorism.’
This may sound funny, but it is a real threat for visitors. Vodka is, like the rest of the region, the tipple of choice and low employment rates and poverty have led to a boom in alcoholism with this violent brawls and incidents.
‘Vodka terrorism’ is a name given to the phenomenon where a local Turkmen either wants a fight, or to rob you, after drinking too much vodka. This can happen in day light hours not just at night, and is most likely to occur on trains – steer clear of obviously drunk men.
No Go Areas
Do not walk alone through the areas to the north-east and east of the capital Ashgabat, especially after sunset. These are the most recognised areas for drugs and violent crime.
Women should not walk alone at night in the capital – or anywhere in Turkmenistan- a local woman would not do so and, regardless to whether it’s fair or not, you will be eyed with suspicion.
In the capital you will, like everyone else, have to observe the curfew in place in the capital Ashgabat – which means strictly no strolling about after 11pm.
During the day it pays to watch your belongings at large bazaars like Tolkuchka (good for picking up a reasonably priced Turkmen rug) – the usual wallet, passport, camera should be tucked away safely under your clothes on in a zipped bag.
To keep your money safely hidden is of extra importance in Turkmenistan which being a cash economy (the national currency is the Manat, which is convertible) means you are likely to be carrying far higher amounts than you might at home.
The other places to be on your guard in the capital are in nightclubs – check your change and note that local vodka and beer aside, imported drinks will be very expensive.
Prostitutes frequent the infamous Florida Disco opposite the The Grand Turkmen Hotel on Gorogly Street, so steer clear of there. Foreign men seen in the company of alleged prostitutes – have been subject to police harassment, detention, and deportation.
If you are the victim of crime in Turkmenistan, or if you are suffering from police harassment, to add to your woes you’ll need to find a translator (ask for assistance from your Embassy, friend or hotelier) as police officers speak only Turkmen, making communication difficult for English or Russian-only speakers. Bribery by the police is common and is a fact of life for many Turkmens.
Play it safe in Turkmenistan, and stick to cooked food – typhoid is not uncommon and can linger in salads and cold meat.
Do not drink the tap water anywhere which may contain traces of metal.
HIV is a growing health threat in Turkmenistan.
You’re not in kansas anymore, Toto. Avoid discussing polit
ics or criticising the President – be wary if strangers spark up these conversations at random with you.
(Don’t criticise or you’ll do time.)
Bugging in hotel rooms is common – telephones, and fax machines may be monitored, and personal possessions in hotel rooms may be searched.
One thing to be aware of as a visitor is that unless married, two individuals of the opposite sex are not allowed to share, or inhabit, a hotel room. If the hotel is suspicious that this is the case, hotel security will actively investigate, and then the police may arrive to solicit bribes.
Male homosexual activity is illegal, punishable by a custodial sentence.
Police – who have the power to stop and search – can ask anyone to present identity papers at any time. If you are searched remain calm and importantly do not let the police put their hands in your pockets, empty your pockets yourself and present their contents. You do not want to be the victim of drug planting in a country that has corrupt police and severe penalties for drug possession. If you are asked to pay a fine for any reason – if at all possible do it at a bank, and get a receipt.
Be very careful taking photographs in Turkmenistan. If you’re unsure of taking a photo of a public building, especially in Ashgabat – check with the police, who will inevitably be watching you anyway.
Your tour company will register you with the State Service for the Registration of Foreign Citizens (OVIR) – make sure they have done this within three working days and to ease the process, bring plenty of passport photographs with you, and photocopies of your passport.
You will need a letter of invitation to get a tourist visa (LOI) from a tour company, there’s no way around this. Plan ahead, talk to your travel agent and leave 6 weeks to get the visa.
Smoking is banned in all public spaces – this means anywhere outside, however in classic Central Asia style at most indoor venues – restaurants, cafes etc, you can puff away with abandon.
Your postcards – if you manage to find any – will be scrutinised by government agents, be careful what you write.
Getting There and Around
Tourists, although welcome, will be expected to hire a guide and be accompanied on an official tour. This is a pain, and an unavoidable one. No only will you pay a day rate for the guide (upwards of $50) you’ll also be expected to pay for their meals and lodging while they’re with you – at hotels and restaurants though they will pay the local rate, which is no more than $2-$5 for room and board. Tipping is not expected.
You do not need a guide in the capital Ashgabat, nor in the immediate surrounding areas. You can visit the following unescorted – Tolkuchka Bazaar, Kipchak Mosque (with Turkmenbashi’s tomb next door), and Nissa – your hotel should be able to assist you with booking a car to visit these places – by far the easiest way to do it, and not expensive.
Do not be fooled by the reference to ‘ferries’ that are often discussed in online forums and that are referred to in popular guidebooks. These ferries – that travel the Caspian Sea from Baku, Azerbaijan, to the port of Turkmenbashy in western Turkmenistan – are in fact cargo ships that take passengers if space allows.
The main issue with embarking on this adventure is that there’s no food or water, the conditions are basic and toilet/washing facilities worse. It’s a risky trip as when ships arrive in Turkmenbashy, they often wait up to a week for a vacant dock – some travellers have had the unfortunate experience of having their Turkmen visa expire while they wait, when food and water has run out too.
No Travel Zones
Several zones in Turkmenistan have been declared ‘no travel zones, or restricted areas’ by the Government – these are mainly the border areas next to Iran, Uzbekistan, and Afghanistan, the region of Dashoguz (including Dashoguz city), and areas of the Caspian coast.
Special permission from the Government of Turkmenistan may be possible if you’re really determined to visit, but also note that Turkmenistan Airlines, the national airline, will not sell a ticket to any traveller who intends to travel to a restricted zone without verification of permission from the government. The wait will be long – the processing time for such permits is 10 working days.
As is often the case in Central Asia most ‘taxis’ are not licensed are most likely to be a man using his family car to make some extra money – these are sometimes known as ‘gypsy cabs.’ Most locals flag a car down and then anything that stops is a ‘taxi’, there’s no official fares, so give what you think is fair. This of course leaves you wide open to being ripped off, but there’s no alternative. If you get in and feel uncomfortable, simply ask them to stop politely, get out and wave them to carry on. This is what locals do and it’s perfectly acceptable.
For a safer ride, use the hard-to-find Yellow Cabs, which are usually located at the airport and near large hotels. Yellow Cabs are the only registered taxis and are discernable by their yellow colour and green Turkmen license plates. If the meter isn’t working, agree a price before getting in. There’s a flat fee of 8 Denominated Turkmen Manat (about AUS $ 2.80 at the March, 2011 exchange rate) within the Ashgabat city limits.
Road conditions outside of major cities are highly variable and usually poor and most public transport, including taxis, will not normally have seat belts provided. Common issues on the roads include dilapidated streets, unlit roads, and surprise camel crossings. Cars also frequently make left-turns from the right lane and vice-versa making driving dicey.
Road blocks occur regularly (whenever you enter a new welayat(province). Your guide will help you with the inevitable document checks that will follow.
What are your thoughts?